Mission accomplished: Singapore rower books historic Olympic ticket

Mission accomplished: Singapore rower books historic Olympic ticket
Saiyidah Aisyah Mohammed Rafa'ee becomes the first national rower to qualify for the Olympics, after being the seventh fastest rower in a qualifying race in South Korea on 25 April 2016.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Many felt it was Mission Improbable when she made the switch from the lightweight to the openweight category eight months ago to pursue her Olympic dream.

Saiyidah Aisyah made the move because this year's Olympics features only one women's lightweight rowing event - the double sculls - and she didn't have a partner.

History was also against her attempt to make the grade for August's Rio Olympics as no Singapore rower had qualified for the Games.

But yesterday morning, the feisty 27-year-old made history when she won the 2,000m women's single sculls B final at the Fisa Asia and Oceania Continental Olympic Qualification Regatta to secure the last of seven slots available at the meet.

At the Tangeum Lake in Chung-ju, South Korea, Saiyidah (above) clocked 7min 53.13sec to win, finishing ahead of five other competitors including runners-up Phuttharaksa Neegree of Thailand (7:54.22) and Qatar's Tala Aladin Abujbara (7:55.66).

HURT

Speaking to The New Paper later, Saiyidah said: "When people tell you that it feels good to finish a race after giving your all, they are all lies!

"The moment I finished, all I could think about was that I was in so much pain. My legs hurt, my head hurt and everything was so bright.

"But when I realised that I had qualified for the Olympics, the feeling was unreal.

"It was an immense relief and it made every ounce of pain I felt so worth it."

Saiyidah had come close in the semi-finals on Sunday.

She had needed to finish in the top three of her race to book her ticket to Rio, but came in fourth instead.

Instead of choking in the B final, the 2013 SEA Games champion and 2015 SEA Games double bronze medallist chalked up the biggest achievement of her rowing career.

"As the days passed, I managed to calm my nerves better," she said.

"Yeah, it has been a crazy journey in South Korea this time but, with every chance I missed, I knew I had to fight even harder in the next one.

"I didn't really think of the last race as the final chance for me to qualify because that would have definitely added more pressure.

"I actually went into the race thinking of it as another chance to qualify, another opportunity to fight and that made me excited, not nervous."

Saiyidah plans to take her training from Sydney to Europe.

"From now on, it's going to be train, train, train. I will possibly participate in some regattas in Europe because it will be winter in Sydney," she said.

ADAPT

"Preparations so far have been pretty hard. I have had to work a lot on my strength because of the change from lightweight to openweight.

"I remember having those crazy trainings and telling my coach Alan Bennett that the pieces were hard and he said, 'It's the Olympics, it's meant to be hard'.

"And the results are showing - I did a 7:44.12 in the heats which was a personal best for me."

Based on results at the last Olympics in 2012, a time of under eight minutes was good enough to make the top 24 and the quarter-finals.

Saiyidah thanked those who helped finance her Olympics bid through crowdfunding, after she raised more than US$12,500 ($17,000) which helped defray training costs and living expenses in Sydney.

Her cause has also been helped by government-funded initiatives like the Race to Rio 2016 programme, which she was on from October to February, and the Sports Excellence Scholarship, which she has been on since March 1.

Under the spexScholarship, athletes receive stipends ranging from $1,200 to $8,400 a month in financial support, and also receive programmatic support to prepare themselves to excel at major Games.


This article was first published on April 26, 2016.
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